Imogen Sara Smith Revisits Wings of Desire
“When the child was a child, it didn’t know it was a child.”
I was not quite a child when I first saw Wings of Desire. I was 15, and I was so overwhelmed by it that I made my best friend watch it with me again the next day. There’s no mystery now as to why I was so smitten. It was my first experience of what would become one of my favorite types of film: the city symphony, the cinema of flânerie. At that age I wore long black overcoats and carried around notebooks in which I earnestly scribbled observations, just like the angels in the film, who drift through Berlin as invisible witnesses to human sorrows and moments of grace. The intensely poetic, romantic, and metaphysical tone spoke directly to my overly serious, budding writer’s soul. I was not yet very cine-literate: I had no clue that the cinematographer Henri Alekan, for whom the film’s charming Gallic circus is named, was a veteran of French classics like Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête. But I was bowled over by the fluid, unchained camera and multilayered sound design that weaves together voices and the ethereal minor-key music of Jürgen Knieper. I took it all in with the wonderstruck child’s perspective the film cherishes, but over time some ambivalence has crept into my relationship with this beloved, hugely ambitious, and complex movie.
In the first film history class I took in college, I decided to write my term paper on Wings of Desire. At this point, I noticed how much more of the film than I remembered dealt with the specters of World War II, and I picked up the allusion to Walter Benjamin’s famous passage about the “angel of history,” who is blown helplessly into the future while facing the past, unable to mend the wreckage and debris of time’s ongoing catastrophe as it piles up at his feet. (A reference to Benjamin’s purchase of Paul Klee’s painting “Angelus Novus” is heard in passing during a scene at the public library, but this detail is not subtitled in most English-language prints.) I also wrestled with what had always been the one difficulty I had with the film. It was not a small thing. Wings of Desire is about an angel, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), who decides to abandon his eternal, incorporeal existence and become human, spurred by his love for a beautiful trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin), and undeterred by the skepticism of his fellow angel Cassiel (Otto Sander). The film resoundingly celebrates his choice as a triumph, but I had to admit I had always been a little disappointed by the transition, which is marked by a shift from black-and-white to color—since angels see in pearly shades of gray. How could I not be dismayed when the previously elegant Damiel emerges from a pawn shop wearing the world’s ugliest jacket? (The joke, presumably, is that as a newborn human he has had no chance to develop taste.) And as for the final conclusion that “the story of a man and a woman” and the consummation of their love is the greatest story in the world, wasn’t this a trifle hackneyed?
As I dug into the film, I learned that some critics took an even dimmer view: in a sour essay, Ronnie Scheib wrote of “the brightly colored awfulness of [its] ‘happy-ever-after’ ending,” which she saw as using a conventional love story to erase history, choosing the pat, personal narrative over the mysterious, intractable realities of the image. In my term paper I loyally defended the arc of the movie against this jaded reading, but the criticisms I explored seem even more persuasive to me now. Wings of Desire argues for the necessity of stories: its scope narrows from aerial, all-encompassing, angel’s-eye views of the city to one couple in a windowless hotel bar; its approach shifts from a fluid, impressionistic flitting through anonymous lives to a single plotline propelled by the urgency of a man and woman finding each other. That I have always found the first part of the film—a city symphony with angels as celestial flâneurs—far more stimulating and original than the last section might be a matter of taste, but I think it also reflects the paradox that the world seen through the angels’ eyes feels more real than the “real life” experienced by Damiel as a human.
Only much later still did I learn that the film was shot without a script, built in collaboration with the actors around a series of monologues provided by Peter Handke, and with the characters’ inner thoughts added at the end over scenes shot silent. This loose, organic process may help explain why the imposition of narrative can feel at odds with the film’s essential nature. In an essay for the Criterion Collection, Michael Atkinson praised Wings of Desire as “a European art film that could be all things to all people,” and that perhaps is the problem.
What the angels collect, at first, are fragments. They move through the city with disembodied liberty, perching on rooftops or on the shoulder of a massive, gilded statue of winged victory, then diving into streets or subway trains to fleetingly brood over troubled souls, or passing in and out of apartments to eavesdrop on the inhabitants’ thoughts. The angels dip into streams of consciousness as though flipping through radio channels (early on, the camera circles around a radio tower while we hear a cacophonous babel of voices), tuning into a woman on a bicycle, a lonely child in a playground, a man thinking about his recently deceased mother, another man fretting over his aimless son. Some of these vignettes suggest stories by metonymy, or even feel complete as one of Félix Fénéon’s “Novels in Three Lines,” like the young streetwalker calculating how much money she needs to go south, or the suicide who puts a different collector’s stamp on each farewell letter. But what we get is often poetry, not plot, as when Damiel consoles a man dying from a traffic accident by stirring him to recall an incantatory list of luminous images: “the spots from the first drops of rain…the veins of leaves…the light from a room in the garden.” The choice tidbits that the angels record in their notebooks are free-floating moments: a woman who closed her umbrella and let the rain drench her, a subway conductor who suddenly announced the next station as “Tierra del Fuego.”
These are the kind of images and overheard snippets one savors as a city dweller and writes down in one’s Moleskine. For the flâneur, the whole point is to remain uninvolved, a wanderer without a goal, alive to the urban spectacle, “a camera with its shutter open,” as Christopher Isherwood famously wrote in Goodbye to Berlin. Weimar-era Berlin was a key locus of flânerie, thanks to Isherwood, Walter Ruttman’s 1927 documentary Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (which gave the genre its name), and Franz Hessel’s 1929 book Walking in Berlin. (The book’s German title, Spazieren in Berlin, is evoked when Peter Falk, playing a version of himself, thinks, “If grandma were here, she’d say, “Go spazieren.” Since we later learn that Falk is a former angel, his reference to his grandmother ispuzzling; Wenders later admitted this was a slip he chose not to correct.) Flânerie was a key inspiration for modernism precisely because it offered an alternative means of organizing a work of art that was not a causally driven, chronologically structured narrative, but reflected the disjointed, mobile, uprooted nature of modernity.
Against this tide, Wings of Desire places the figure of “Homer,” a frail old man who represents the eternal storyteller, lamenting his neglect and obsolescence. He is first introduced in a marvelous sequence set in a huge public library, where the inner voices of all the readers and researchers—and perhaps of the books themselves—blend into a sibilant chorus of whispers. (Off-duty angels hang out in the library—of course they do!) Homer is played by the 85-year-old Curt Bois, a Jewish actor who had fled Germany for Hollywood during the Nazi era but returned in 1950. In a later scene, he wanders through a grassy wasteland, searching for traces of the destroyed Potsdamer Platz. Bois’s presence is a submerged reference to Germany’s wartime past, but others are overt. Archival footage of bombed buildings and dead children lying in the street keep erupting like recurring nightmares. Meanwhile, the film set for the movie that has brought Peter Falk to Berlin is a reconstruction of a bombed ruin, peopled by extras dressed as Nazis, Hitler Youth, and Jews wearing yellow stars. The film appears to be a detective-story potboiler, and Falk’s main concern is to find a good hat for his character, leading to a funny scene where he tries on dozens of chapeaux. The tone is lightly and affectionately satiric; but I can’t help wondering if the transformation of Nazi-era atrocities into a popcorn movie is what Homer means by humanity’s eternal need for storytelling?
As Orson Welles says in F for Fake, every story is some kind of a lie. When the angels talk about their longing to be mortal, one of the pleasures Damiel imagines is “to lie—through the teeth!” It seems surprisingthat, while the angels dwell on their curiosity about what it’s like to have a body—to feel your bones when you walk, to have a fever, to have blackened fingers from reading the newspaper—it is never suggested that they might give up immortality because, having been present since primeval times and able to remember everything they ever saw, they are exhausted and traumatized from passively witnessing millennia of suffering and cruelty. Might they not question their purpose or ultimately reject it as useless? One gets a whiff of this feeling in scenes where Cassiel, the more melancholy and astringent of the pair, slumps in an empty double-decker bus in the bleak dawn—angels never sleep, presumably—or when he cries out in anguish when a young suicide slips from his immaterial grasp and plunges off a roof. These are not really “guardian angels,” since they cannot interfere: Cassiel sums up their brief as “Keep to yourself. Let things happen. Always remain serious.” But their compassion and tenderness for people is one of the loveliest aspects of the film’s vision, expressed in the way they gently lay a hand on a shoulder or lean their brows against a troubled person’s head, providing some comfort through their unseen presence. Is it selfish of them to abandon this duty in order to have lives of their own?
It’s hard to blame Damiel for his infatuation with Marion. With her flame-colored hair and vivid beauty, she represents the pleasures of fleshly love but also the vulnerability of mortal flesh, performing an agonizingly slow-motion routine on the trapeze without a net. However, the price of being human (sickness, death, taxes, boring jobs, bad dates, etc.) is elided. The angels observe many varieties of human misery, but Damiel’s experience of “real life” is almost entirely rosy. When he bleeds, he is excited to find that blood has taste; he does not apparently feel any pain. Strangers he meets are kind and helpful, even when they must surely take him for a mentally ill homeless person. People spontaneously offer him money. He is able to find Marion (thanks to a concert by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, conveniently appearing in town the day after he saw her play one of their records), and she instantly recognizes him as the man of her destiny, since he appeared to her in an unabashedly kitschy dream sequence, clad in a breastplate, metallic face-paint, and enormous wings. In a long, portentous speech, she declares that the whole human race is involved in their momentous decision to be together—without explaining how or why—and that theirs is the ultimate story.
This monologue and Damiel’s even loftier concluding voice-over take the film from the concrete and ordinary to the archetypal realm of the fairy tale. He now has a story, the story of an immortal True Love. But when Peter Falk, at a coffee-stand in a scruffy vacant lot, tells the angelic Damiel how many “good things” there are about being human, he speaks of cigarettes and coffee, rubbing your hands together when it’s cold, making a line on a paper with a pencil. He still sees these things with an angel’s eyes. Whereas people, as unable to escape physicality as angels are toexperience it, rarely savor the exotic pleasures they imagine: wiggling one’s toes, being jostled by a crowd, coming home and feeding the cat. We are trapped in our own thoughts, our constructed stories, our need to impose meaning and significance on our lives. The angels wistfully imagine being able to say “now,”instead of “forever” and “since always.” But how often, despite endless reminders and admonitions, do mortals succeed at living in the moment?
Another way of looking at Wings of Desire is that its angels experience the world as cinema: in black-and-white, liberated from constraints of space and time, able to hear people’s thoughts, but without the ability to touch or change what they are watching. With the patience and precision of cameras, they take in and preserve moments just as they are: a newspaper flapping in a grate, a flock of birds scattering from a tree. It is this vision of cinema as a tender and audacious attempt to pay attention to everything, to see a whole city from the gutters to the towers, the sidewalks to the bedrooms, that first made me fall in love with Wings of Desire. And it still does today.